Book review: Winter of the World by Ken Follett

The nights are drawing in and it’s time to pick up the second hefty instalment of Follett’s epic and hugely ambitious Century trilogy.

And Winter of the World is a big read on every level... big in size (818 pages no less), epic in scope, wide-ranging in themes and seemingly bottomless in its deep well of human drama.

Follett is always at his best when he blends fact and fiction and then pastes his perfect pastiche onto a broad canvas of history, using an artist’s bold brush and a showman’s eye for stunning visual and emotional impact.

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The action has moved from the early years of the 20th century to the Second World War and its menacing prelude, all seen through the eyes of a second generation of the characters first encountered in Fall of Giants.

Five families, from America, Germany, Russia and Britain, live out their disparate destinies on a hugely ambitious, brilliantly constructed and powerfully emotive world stage.

Follett has reached top gear in this second foray into one of the most tumultuous centuries of the modern age. Using a mountain of research and a wide range of pivotal events, the plot becomes a riveting history lesson, a virtual journey into a period of darkness which he brings to life in all its powerful, punishing and personal reality.

Individual experiences embody and reflect events taking place on a global level so that we are allowed a multi-faceted perspective of two decades of history – the clashes of the bitter Spanish Civil War, the brutal rise of Nazism, the conflict of loyalty facing ordinary Germans, the crucial role of Russia and the political machinations of Britain and America.

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Berlin in 1933 is in upheaval and eleven-year-old Carla von Ulrich struggles to understand the tensions disrupting her family as Hitler strengthens his grip on Germany.

Into this turmoil steps her mother’s formidable friend and former British MP Ethel Leckwith and her student son Lloyd Williams who soon sees for himself the vicious truths of Nazism. He also encounters a group of Germans resolved to oppose Hitler, but would they be willing to betray their country?

These are the people being closely watched by Volodya Peshkov, a Russian with a bright future in Red Army Intelligence, and whose work will affect Europe long after the war has ended.

At Cambridge, Lloyd is irresistibly drawn to Volodya’s cousin and dazzling American socialite Daisy Peshkov, who represents everything Lloyd’s left-wing family despise. But Daisy is more interested in aristocratic Boy Fitzherbert, an amateur pilot, party lover and leading light of the British Union of Fascists.

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Back in Berlin, Carla worships family friend and golden boy Werner Franck from afar but nothing will work out the way they expect as the ensuing international clash of military power and personal beliefs rages from Cable Street in London’s East End to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, from Spain to Stalingrad and from Dresden to Hiroshima.

Winter of the World, which can easily be read as a stand-alone novel, excels in its eye for detail, its superbly interwoven narratives, its effortless, elegant style and, above all, in its sheer power to entertain right through to the last page.

A big bruiser of a story from a master storyteller...

(Macmillan, hardback, £20)